Saturday, November 5, 2011

Lisa Napoli's "Radio Shangri-La": Book Review

A solid combination of travelogue and memoir, this takes us into a land where until recently, few could enter. And, with the tourist tax and limited access now, few can afford to visit. It reminded me of Jennifer Steil's Yemen encounter as "The Woman Who Fell From the Sky" (2010: see on Amazon US or my longer review on PopMatters): a driven but weary journalist in a high-powered profession, unattached and searching for meaning, on short notice and happenstance leaves the big American city to advise those in a remote country who want to become more Westernized in their media, within a strongly traditional culture. Like Steil, Napoli seeks love and finds it, so she thinks, among the ex-pats in the capital city. Yet, as readers will find, Napoli's maturity may make for a more satisfying moral than Steil's to her journey, as much delving inside herself as describing what she sees on the outside in this Himalayan kingdom.

Similar to Steil's time abroad in its scope and events, Napoli's itinerary during 2007, the Year of the Female Fire Hog, seems rather limited, for time and sights. She tells of what happens at Thimphu's newly launched Kuzoo 108 radio, even if her tale tends towards the everyday in a globalized pop culture blur that links her to her Bhutanese hosts as often as what keeps them still so much different than Americans. As she does not get out of the capital much, there's not a lot that happens. But her enthusiasm, tempered with her growing understanding of Buddhist transience, enriches her straightforward narrative. She's not a flashy writer, so the depth comes more from subtle transformations inside her, compared to the rapid ones in a nation eager to tap into what it sees as the excitement, comforts, and goods of globalization.

The irony of her (a native Brooklynite) leaving downtown L.A. (working for NPR's "Marketplace") to quiet down in this place that seeks to settle people into a happiness based on not materialism but spiritual balance does not escape her. She and her radio crew try to promote a "Symphony of Love" for Valentine's Day while she comes to terms with the lessons of what may appear to be lifelong love, but in fact may be a pleasant encounter. Her tempered wisdom works well in her telling.

Later, her return to Bhutan, twice in a brief time, brings already the sense of a rapidly Westernizing realm. It's one that appears in her perspective as a protective one, like that towards a lover, worried about the object of her affection becoming too altered, too quickly. But that attachment's not the Buddhist way, either, as she learns.

While I learned much less about Bhutan itself than what I'd expected, a bibliography, some fact-filled chapters late in the book, and a list of websites point us towards more information. The tone's therefore a bit uneven, but this may reflect her own preoccupations as they shift from first visit to follow-up complications. (I wish photos were included: they were needed to enhance the rather low-key account of what Bhutan looks like, at least beyond Thimphu, where she's settled in for most of the events.)

Napoli favors her own vantage point, as character-driven rather than focused on scenery or excitement, and she keeps the story a modest one. She reveals enough of her past to inform her own transformation but she does not linger. She keeps the story moving, and although the tone of later chapters, after her first return home and then back again, feels altered, she's changed from her Bhutanese stay. Her own sudden embrace of being a godmother, and her own insights as she connects more with a country in need of contraception and all sorts of careful planning with temptations all around it, make for a satisfying, delayed-coming-of-age tale. (Posted to Amazon US & 3-1-11)

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